The Mars Volta - Octahedron (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Mars Volta

Octahedron (2009)

Warner Bros.

What about the voice of Geddy Lee…
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy (?)
I know him, and he does"
- Pavement, 1997

What about the voice of Cedric Bixler-Zavala…
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy (?)
I've heard him, and he kind of does"
- GlassPipeMurder, 2009

It's been just a year since the Mars Volta's Grammy-winning The Bedlam in Goliath dropped, but everyone's favorite pair of afroed Texicans are already back with a new set of spacey riffs, vexing time signatures and hallucinogenic lyrics comprising the eight songs of Octahedron.

While comparing this post-hardcore/prog-rock/Latin-influenced jam factory to Rush is both a lazy description and an erroneous one, it's harder to avoid on Octahedron than in the past. While this may be due in part to not promoting the album with a free Circle Jerks cover, and the album itself somewhat lacking the frequency of spastic freakouts found on Goliath, it's also by design the band's "acoustic" album, drawing much less from punk dynamism and even more on ambience, minimalism and metamorphosing musical transitions. However, even though the band refers to it as their acoustic album, there are enough chaotic outbursts and rollicking rhythms to satisfy those still riding the train from the At the Drive-In days.

"Since We've Been Wrong," the album's North American single, will probably not satisfy said fans, though. Drifting calmly, it wanes more than it waxes, but does serve as a new, more relaxed direction for the mercilessly progressive act. Europe's first single "Cotopaxi" is much more in the vein of what one would expect from the Mars Volta. With a fuzzy groove and hastened tempo complementing Bixler-Zavala's soaring vocals, it makes for the album's best track while completely putting to rest any literal interpretations of this as an acoustic album. The album is thus rescued from tedium alongside such other notables as "Teflon," which helps reiterate the mastery of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's production skills, and "Desperate Graves," a startlingly straightforward number structurally and lyrically as Cedric promises creepily, "When I turn the dial and leave the gas on / I'm the matchstick that you'll never lose."

Some of the tracks demand more patience than they may be worth to many listeners, such as the seven-and-a-half minute "Copernicus" that follows a crawling guitar pattern up and down the scale, flanking the seemingly effortless crooning that deviates only to reach for excessively high stretches. "With Twilight as My Guide" reaches nearly eight minutes, rooted in an atmospheric foundation aided by former Sublime and LBDAS confidant (and seemingly Mars Volta lifer) Ikey Owens. It's an interesting number, but it never takes off and passes by rather unassumingly.

Then there are those on Octahedron that do a magnificent balancing act between the minimalism of the "acoustic" direction and the convulsive Mars Volta that wows listeners around the world. "Halo of Nembutals" erupts in a series of crashes and staccato flairs after glowing softly for a minute and a half, while album closer "Luciforms" captures a quiet intensity offset with paroxysmal whirling and some of the best guitar soloing in the band's catalog.

Octahedron is certainly not going to win over any critics or skeptics of the inexorably experimental ensemble. To them, this is probably more of the same weird clamor of the last seven years, just with a different title. And while that may be true to an extent, followers of the band will find a more controlled, meditative effort here that still manages to impress the same level of musical ingenuity.